Slaying the Performance Anxiety Beast

Saturday afternoon on 4/30/2016, there was a benefit concert for my childhood piano school, The French School of Music in Plainfield, NJ. I sat on a bench with the other performers, next to a French School alumnus, waiting to play. What unfolded during the concert had me flashing back to an experience in 1973, so I’ll start there first.

In 1973, during my first MEC (Music Education Council) NJ State piano competition, I was waiting in line with other competitors in my age group to play (I was 8 at the time). I looked to my left and saw a boy slouched back in his chair, his arms wrapped around his stomach. He looked pale and upset. I asked him if he was OK, and he groaned: “no. I don’t want to go up there and play, I have butterflies in my tummy!” Well thanks. Once I learned he had butterflies in his tummy, I had butterflies in my tummy.

He went up and played before me, since we were playing in age order (oldest to youngest) from left to right. He wasn’t a student at my piano school so he played differently than my teacher had coached me, but he did OK and walked off. Then it was my turn. After I was done, my mom and piano teacher wanted to know what the heck had happened. They said I was so nervous everyone could see it, and my left leg was shaking badly while I was on stage. My poor teacher had trained me well but she certainly didn’t anticipate being blindsided by a non-French School competitor who had accidentally (?) stumbled on the perfect method for derailing a fellow competitor. That year, the student with butterflies in his tummy came in first place, and I came in third. The next year, I came in first place and he came in fifth. 

But the performance anxiety never left me, and most times I performed at around 80% of what I was capable of doing when I was playing privately without an audience. While I played at Carnegie Recital Hall nine times as a child, most of those were as a second place winner. It wasn’t until years later when, as a software developer branching into technical training, I thought about my past experiences as a pianist, and decided it was silly for me to suffer from stage fright. By using my early music education and gaining consistent experience doing technical training, I got over my fears and taught well over 1000 people Sybase, Java, and object-oriented technology.

Fast forward to this benefit concert in 2016. The performer sitting next to me said, I am so nervous!! I’m thinking wait, you’re in med school and you practice three hours a day, why are you nervous?! And given my experience in 1973, this wasn’t helping me one darn bit. I hadn’t performed musically in years, or consistently musically in decades, and I was supposed to end the performance program with a world premiere of my own composition. He bemoaned how, when performing another work, he completely blanked on how it started, and if he could get through the first four bars of his piece, he thought he’d be OK. This was a much younger alumnus and I used this rationale to gently persuade my fist of death not to try and land a solid punch.

I told him something I’d learned years ago, to try and help him reframe his perspective. What we may register as fear - e.g. increased, rapid heart rate - is our body’s way of preparing us to be maximally effective when we need to perform. The heart is pumping more blood, which means more oxygen to the brain helping us stay alert, and more fuel to our muscles to move effectively. His face lit up and he appreciated that tip. It didn’t fully stop him from continuing to voice his fears, and in spite of my knowing this little gem, my anxiety was starting to increase to a point where even these types of tips were not fully effective. But in retrospect I’m grateful this happened, and you’ll see why. It’s also why I’m writing this blog post, hoping to give others concrete insights and methods for slaying this particularly nefarious dragon when it rears its ugly head. I want to tell you specifically what I added to the above gem that allowed me to short circuit a challenging situation.

I thought about the various breathing techniques in yoga classes, and settled on one where I closed my eyes and took a slow deep breath in through my nose as far as I could, then held it for five seconds. I then exhaled slowly through my mouth as far as I could exhale, holding it for five seconds. And then I kept repeating the process until my heart rate had slowed to a more manageable pace. This, together with the reframing technique, worked for me.

I’m glad this alumnus brought up the fears that he brought up. They can be addressed with the correct practice techniques and prior preparation.

The best way to address fear is to practice thoroughly before the concert. This, plus the two above techniques, maximize your chances of having a performance where you are able to play to the end without stopping. This means using the continuity rule, working on the hardest parts of the piece first, working on the beginning and ending first (since this is what audiences and judges remember the most), and having a couple informal dry run performances prior to a competition.

Fear of blanking when starting a piece: practice clean, cold starts regularly. Wake up, go to your keyboard, start your piece (or see if you can play straight through). Grab breakfast, then do another cold start. Before you leave the house, try another cold start. The goal is to be able to start playing your piece, cleanly and without stopping and restarting multiple times ("stuttering", which is a bad habit that disciplined cold start practice can eliminate). 

If you’re waiting to play and wondering if you can still remember how to play the first few bars, play them on your leg. This is another good technique to learn - how to practice without a keyboard that gives you audial and tactile feedback.

I’ve always done my performances by memory and that is another source of reinforcement. As a child I had perfect pitch (I still have it as long as I maintain it by solfegging additional improvised voices to music I’m listening to on a regular basis). That is another source of reinforcement. It turns out this alumnus started lessons at French School after solfege classes had stopped (this is difficult to do if there aren’t enough students, and requires younger teachers able to keep up with often energetic, young students). As a result, while he was a performing beast, he hadn’t had ear training and didn’t always know all of the intervals, and while he heard music in his head, he didn’t know enough to write it down. Our solfege classes at French School gave all students a consistent foundation in singing on pitch, solfegging, sight-reading, ear training, conducting time, and music dictation.

The last tip I will discuss ended up being a challenge for me. Since our new solfege class was also singing at this concert, we had a rehearsal at the concert location (a church) the day before the concert. As a volume test I played part of my composition. The mistake I made was not running through the entire piece when I had a chance, and the piano had just been tuned and I thought everything was just fine.

The next day, I was puzzled when another alumnus mentioned the action was difficult to play, as the other performers had 2 hours prior to the concert to acclimate to the environment and grand piano. I played part of my composition again, at half speed, as we were taught to end at medium speed prior to our performance. This is a great way to prevent strange glitches from popping up just prior to your performance.

With all of these techniques I was as well prepared as I could be, but as I viewed the video afterwards I realized with the adrenaline I’d played at a pretty good pace, and nearly derailed at the tougher parts toward the end. That’s because I have an electronic keyboard at home (due to urban space constraints) so I didn’t have full endurance for a grand piano with a mellow upper half, and when I finally played the difficult parts at full speed, I realized this alumnus was right in saying the action was hard to play. It was fine for less technical and slower playing, but for those of us doing challenging works at full speed, the action wasn’t quite up to snuff.

In cases like this, several things come to mind. If you are not a star performer who can request, for example, which Steinway grand you will rent for your upcoming performance, it would help to know your environment well prior to the concert. If it’s early enough, it may even influence what kinds of pieces you choose to perform. If you learn during a dry run (or worse, during the performance) that the instrument isn’t up to snuff, professional musicians know how to adapt on the fly - to breathe more frequently, slow down and add stylistic rubatos to navigate areas that become too challenging with an unregulated action. That happened with most of the performers at this concert.

Playing at the end can be a challenge, as this can increase the anxiety. Or, it may actually help. When you learn from other performers that they had trouble with the action, and they bemoan their missed notes and flubs, it’s nice knowing you’re all in the same boat and that can actually relieve some of the pressure. It did for me, and made me that much more aware when I had to adapt on the fly. As a result, while I had missed notes, I was able to start and get to the end of the piece without stopping.

I survived the very first world premiere of one of my compositions. And sometimes, that’s all that counts.